A Good Game: 1934’s The Black Cat by matthew c. hoffman
“Do you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.”
~Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)
Two weeks ago we had a wild night at the Wonder Bar. I mentioned how that pre-Code musical had a carefree, amoral tone to it. Tonight’s film goes beyond moral indiscretions into one of the lowest levels of Hell. Evil has a face in a film that offers us murder, torture, incest, and a Satanic ritual. It’s one of the most perverse, morbid films to come out of Hollywood. Some of its suggestiveness got past censors who didn’t realize exactly what was going on. What’s so fascinating from our perspective is that the atmosphere of death that pervades the entire film is closely associated with the Art Deco set design.
The Black Cat is the most striking example of Modernist design in 1930s cinema. Tonight we will see it in the horror genre and next week we shall see it in the fantasy civilization of Kor in She. In many scholarly examinations of director Edgar G. Ulmer’s masterpiece, authors frequently refer to the “Bauhaus” influence.
The Bauhaus, or “house of construction,” was a state-sponsored design school in Germany that was prominent in the Modernist movement. It was founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 by Walter Gropius. He created an environment that fostered an artistic spirit. Form following function was one of the basic tenets. These designs were often simplified and devoid of ornamentation. Some of the elements in tonight’s film that represent the style include the stainless steel staircase, the neon lights, and the chrome furnishings.
But the spirit of Modernism flourished in other parts of the world besides Germany. There was France, of course, considered the cradle of Art Deco. In America, Modernism reached the public through the medium of motion pictures where audiences could for the first time discover this new architecture. In Hollywood, theatre-goers experienced the Modernist trend in films like 1930’s What a Widow!, which starred Gloria Swanson. But one of the most memorable of all 1930s films that showcased modern decor was Universal’s The Black Cat, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.
Ulmer was a product of Weimar cinema. He had studied architecture in Germany before entering film and was undoubtedly familiar with the Bauhaus style. He served as a set designer early in his career for stage director Max Reinhardt. In addition, he was a designer-apprentice to the great German director F.W. Murnau before eventually coming to America. The Black Cat, his second film in the United States, has a strong Germanic influence throughout due to Ulmer’s (uncredited) hand in its set design. Charles D. Hall, a brilliant designer himself, was the credited art director. Besides the gothic look of the Universal monster series, Hall designed the Art Deco nightclub in the 1929 musical Broadway as well as the streamlined factory for Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.
The Black Cat begins with a honeymooning couple played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells. On their train ride they meet the renowned Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, played by Bela Lugosi, a soldier from the Great War with a score to settle. After an accident on a bus in the countryside, Werdegast guides the travelers to a Modernist house built on the ruins of Fort Marmaros. The owner, Hjalmar Poelzig—the Boris Karloff character– is the man Werdegast has sought out.
To say more of the bizarre plot would rob you of the element of surprise, and though many of us have seen this film many times, I always have to assume, when writing these talks, that you have not. As I mentioned earlier, the film is about the kind of evil that can be seen and felt, as embodied in one human form. Poelzig is, like the black cat of legend, evil incarnate– a practitioner of the Black Arts who is masked by a veneer of sophistication.
The classical music arrangements add to Poelzig’s façade of intellectual refinement. Unlike most films of the era, music is heard almost continuously in The Black Cat with selections from such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. And I haven’t heard Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo & Juliet” theme played this often since, well, since our screening of The Kiss with Greta Garbo.
Poelzig is an architect. (His name is Ulmer’s homage to German Expressionist designer Hans Poelzig, whom he had met on the set of The Golem back in his silent days.) The home, built on the ruins of a World War I battlefield, is heavily influenced by the geometric asymmetry of the Bauhaus tradition. Despite having the “old dark house” trappings of stranded guests and secret rooms, The Black Cat is unique because its horror is set in a thoroughly modern and brightly-lit setting–not a shadow-filled castle. Illumination contrasts with the moral darkness of Poelzig. Modernism is also equated with European decadence resulting from the First World War—a new style built upon the buried past. A sense of entrapment and doom pervade the house as though the souls of the dead soldiers are still there. His home, stark and industrial, becomes a prison for those that represent normality. The Black Cat is a superb example of how set design can establish the mood and tone of a film.
“The house is a cold and glossy marvel of glass brick, Bakelite floors, and curving metal staircases,” write Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers in Screen Deco. “Furnishings include glass tables, Breuer chairs, and digital clocks. ‘When one sees The Black Cat today,’ mused Ulmer in an interview, ‘one realizes that the set could have been conceived by Poelzig twenty years after the film was made.’” Ulmer himself was ahead of his time in designing it.
Of the film’s origins, I’d like to quote its director. In Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It, which is a collection of his earlier interviews with legendary Hollywood filmmakers, he asked Ulmer where the idea originated for the house being built on the graveyard of a battlefield.
“That came out many years before,” Ulmer said. “I had been in Prague, as I told you, and had worked on The Golem. At that time I met Gustav Meyrinck, the man who wrote Golem as a novel. Meyrinck was one of those strange Prague Jews, like Kafka, who was very much tied up in the mystic Talmudic background. We had a lot of discussions, and Meyrinck at that time was contemplating a play based upon Doumont, which was a French fortress the Germans had shelled to pieces during World War I; there were some survivors who didn’t come out for years. And the commander was a strange Euripedes figure who went crazy three years later, when he was brought back to Paris, because he had walked on that mountain of bodies. I thought it was an important subject, and that feeling was in the air in the twenties.”
The Black Cat was the first—and best– of eight pairings of the two titans of terror of the 1930s: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. For those who’d like to read in-depth about their respective careers, one of the best authors out there is Gregory Mank, who has written profusely on the subject. The most detailed examination of tonight’s film can be found in his Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration. (Every monster fan should have this volume on their bookshelf.) Karloff, of course, best known for playing the Frankenstein monster three years before, and Lugosi, the Hungarian who will forever be identified as Dracula.
They are two of my favorite actors, and for those of us who admire Lugosi, it was nice to see him play the hero for once. Aside from things like The Return of Chandu, which was a Poverty Row movie serial, he never got to be the romantic hero. He was mostly typecast as the villain. In fact, in an earlier cut of The Black Cat, Bela’s character, consumed by madness, vengeance, and lust, veered into the familiar territory of villainy. Bela was discouraged with what he had once again become. But in the retakes that Ulmer shot, he made Bela more a protector and less a predator.
Even with his accent I think Bela could’ve been a great character actor in Hollywood if given the right material. His role in Son of Frankenstein is considered his best performance, but even in non-horror films he could’ve tackled parts that went to actors like fellow Hungarian Paul Lukas. In his prime, long before the days when Ed Wood came knocking, Lugosi was one of the most captivating stars with a magnetic screen presence.
Some critics label Lugosi a ham and nothing more, but I’m not one of them… although his reaction to the black cats is less than subtle. But some of his best acting is also found in The Black Cat. He effectively captures a sad longing for his wife when he meets the newlyweds on the train, and later in the film, I love how he gently underplays his reaction to seeing her in Poelzig’s gallery. These are qualities of his acting that were rarely exploited in the ensuing years.
Karloff’s performance as the demonic architect, on the other hand, is more understated than Lugosi’s role, but it’s no less potent as his expression comes mainly through body movement, like a cat toying with chessboard pawns. It’s one of the most disturbing roles he ever played. The Poelzig of Ulmer’s scenario may have been inspired by the real life exploits of British occultist and Satanist Aleister Crowley, a character once called by the press, “the wickedest man in the world.”
Boris Karloff, I feel, is underrated. He was certainly one of the great character actors. Karloff the Uncanny immortalized himself by playing some of the most ghoulish characters on screen, but in real life he was the opposite of that image. He was an English gentleman, respected and admired by the industry. He did not have Lugosi’s ego, and because of that directors like Ulmer enjoyed working with him.
“Karloff kept insisting that he didn’t want to make any more horror pictures,” Ulmer had said. “One of the things he found most exciting in the film was the wardrobe. He knew he would be playing ‘Karloff,’ but also felt in these duds, he could employ a sort of ‘out of this world’ appearance. That, as you know, was exactly as he appeared.”
David Manners, who died in 1998 at the age of 98, is a familiar face to horror fans, having starred in two of the defining films of the genre: Dracula in 1931 and The Mummy in 1932. Manners was a reliable leading man, bringing an affable quality to roles that could’ve otherwise been quite thankless or perfunctory. Though he’s rendered ineffectual in The Black Cat, it’s still one of his best films. I’ve always liked David Manners for simply being a likeable presence on screen, a beloved leading man for those of us who grew up on Universal horror.
In a shortened career, he appeared in The Last Flight, Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman, and A Bill of Divorcement. He considered Hollywood to be what he called a “false place” and became bored with it and left the screen in 1936. In the 1940s he returned to the theatre and evidently made quite an impact on one young stage actor. “I owe him my entire career,” Marlon Brando reportedly once said of him. David Manners was also an artist and author of several novels as well as a book on philosophy. For more on his life, there is a wonderful tribute page at www.davidmanners.com.
Jacqueline Wells is better known as the actress Julie Bishop. She was never a big star, but appeared in several major films during the second half of her career. In the early 1940s the Warner Brothers studio offered her a contract but asked her to change her name. Up until then, “Jacqueline Wells” had been associated with B-movies like Tarzan the Fearless. She began as a child actress in the early 1920s and starred in some early Laurel & Hardy shorts and appeared in their 1936 feature The Bohemian Girl. After the name change, she starred in such memorable productions as Action in the North Atlantic, The Sands of Iwo Jima and The High and the Mighty. And like David Manners, in her years away from Hollywood she became a painter. She died on her birthday in 2001 at the age of 87.
Lucille Lund, who plays the angelic Karen Werdegast, broke into Hollywood on the basis of winning a Universal Studios-sponsored magazine contest for the most beautiful college girl. Lund had actually studied acting at Northwestern University. She debuted onscreen in 1933 and worked at various studios. Ironically, she would cross paths with Julie Bishop in several films. On the set of The Black Cat she had to resist the advances of director Ulmer. Author Steven Warren Hill writes that in retaliation, Ulmer treated her terribly. He called for a lunch break “as she hung helpless by her neck in her glass coffin in one case, and another time constricting her blood supply to the extent that she lost consciousness and began bleeding from the mouth.” Actor Harry Cording, who plays Lugosi’s servant, saved her life. Lucille Lund did not have a long career at Universal.
“Most of the pressbook ballyhoo recommended that theatres exploit the black cat angle. Typical of the feline-infested showmanship were recommendations that two men in a giant black cat outfit roam the streets, that a sidewalk projector beam the image of a black cat, that the theatre sponsor a black cat contest, and that an art contest be held for the best black cat drawing, and that an illuminated cat’s head be employed…” ~ author Don G. Smith
The film had a 15 day shooting schedule and was made for less than a hundred thousand dollars. As time would prove, Ulmer was a B-movie maestro and has a cult following to this day because of films like 1945’s Detour, a film noir which was made with even less. The studio attached Edgar Allan Poe’s name to the material, but aside from the title and the symbolic use of the black cat, there is no direct connection to the original source material. Poe’s name, as Ulmer would attest, was used strictly for publicity. Nevertheless, it is very much in the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe. The film runs just over an hour, but more footage had been shot, such as an opening wedding scene. The Black Cat did have some censorship issues which resulted in some cuts, such as a shot of a cat licking blood off Joan Alison’s shoulder. Some European countries banned the film outright, but in the United States it became Universal’s biggest hit of 1934 despite taking a beating by critics.
The Black Cat remains a favorite among genre fans and Karloff-Lugosi admirers alike. I believe the film is a masterpiece, and I never get tired of watching it. There are so many memorable lines of dialogue, the cinematography by Illinois-native John Mescall fluidly captures the set design, and the cast is absolutely perfect. Author Greg Mank summed it up best: “The Black Cat would be their most glorious teaming. Karloff’s Lascivious Lucifer versus Lugosi’s Avenging Angel makes The Black Cat transcend the horror movie genre, and become a grand, lunatic fairy tale, sparked by a wickedly imaginative director, a bewitched camera and a properly epic romantic score.”
Some library patrons ask me which is my favorite film in Screen Deco, and I’m always vague because I want people to see all these films—not just the ones I like the most. But if repeated viewing is any measure of a film’s impact in one’s life, then surely The Black Cat is my favorite.
The Black Cat is Hollywood’s best example of the Bauhaus influence. You don’t have to look hard to see it because its presence is as important as any character. It’s a landmark film in modern architecture because it shows the concepts of a European style in practice in American cinema. Where horror and the Bauhaus meet, you have The Black Cat. Enter at your own risk.